Hello, Mr. Chips? Schoolteachers and Sexism

09/11/2011 12:07 GMT | Updated 09/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Drop whatever you're doing. The Tories have given their myth-making machine a crank. Until 11th November, Michael Gove's department wants to hear from "stakeholders" about dusting off a relic. Democratic policies have failed to cure all ills, so it's time to whip out the cane and put the authoritarian boot in.

Behold the "Master Teacher."

He's the guy you want to be, apparently. According to the Department for Education, "these new higher-level standards should define the standards of those teachers whose practice is regarded as outstanding." Aspiring to mere excellence, it seems, lacks vertical thrust.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal has met with scepticism. Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers, commented to the effect that, while the new standards capture what good teachers already do, the Master Teacher ethos is sexist and anachronistic. The majority of teachers are women, so requiring them to embody the ideals of a fictional boys' public schoolmaster, and sentimental Victorian everyman, from the 1930's novel Goodbye, Mr Chips, raises a raft of gender issues.

Popular cant tells us "feminised" schooling disadvantages boys. The contradictions in that story belie the anxieties driving it. Hands are wrung over the perceived lack of Jeremy Clarksonism in teaching methods and curriculum content. At the same time, there is a wish to contain and channel the hypermasculinity associated with disrupting lessons, abusive behaviour, going NEET and joining gangs. Either way, the remedy is more machismo in the classroom. Never mind the effect on women teachers, girl pupils and boys who can't or won't join in.

The naïve response remains to push for more men teachers to act as "role models." Unless he wants to be one of the lads, or to bully them, a male teacher will tend to embody the diligence and sensitivity that champions of oppositional gender roles would deride as "feminine." If decent teachers - women and men - posses those qualities, where is the basis for hiring more men? The only justification is the discredited belief that importing male authority figures to engage in power struggles with the most challenging boys can tamp down, rather than ramp up, aggression.

Look out, though. The new standards set us up neatly for the next stage in the privatisation of state schools. The image of the Victorian gentleman scholar in the classroom heralds the restoration of the "natural" order. Stable hierarchies of gender, class and race may comfort those unable to imagine a more equitable and inclusive society, but they send a chill through the rest of us.

Why, in 2011, are the government even considering measuring the professional attainment of teachers against a disciplinarian, public school, male standard that excludes - for starters - anyone doing their best to teach poor and ethnic minority pupils in under-resourced schools? It seems particularly galling given that, rather than direct resources to existing schools in deprived areas, funding has been channelled into setting up Free Schools and Academies to compete with them in arigged game.

The sexist language of the Master Teacher initiative signals that it is driven by the same neglect of womens' social needs that drives the cuts. Changing the title to, say, "Premium Teacher" won't uproot the ideology, even if a tweak would marginally increase support from a dwindling group of women. Although fully aware of womens' outrage at policies that disproportionately impact upon us, the Tories remain uninterested in joining the dots when it comes to gender equality.

There is, thankfully, an approach that sidesteps all that rightwing baggage. The draft proposal says:

"Master Teachers make critical use of relevant pedagogic developments and techniques."

Under this definition, an outstanding teacher would be one who has absorbed the importance of a critical approach to gender in education. Under this definition, a teacher like Ileana Jimenez would be nationally lauded for excellence in supporting pupils as they develop critical skills in relation to gender. Elly Barnes would not only top the Independent Pink List for her proactive approach to eliminating homophobia and cultivating diversity, she would be promoted as a model for teachers to aspire to. Teachers like Zoe Eaves, who see patiently challenging gender stereotypes as integral to their classroom practise, would become the norm.

Feminists have long been interested in the connection between male supremacist ideologies and increased violence towards and discrimination against women and girls. Policies that render women invisible or present "feminisation" as the problem, rather than an essential part of the solution, are the cornerstones of a culture that tolerates gender inequality and damaging attitudes towards women teachers and girl pupils alike.

Gove has made his disrespect for women teachers explicit. The cultural creep in the direction of a dusted-down patriarchy, laid out by his party, is cause for serious concern. Democracy and the rule of law require a more adaptive and inclusive approach. If not, it's women and girls who will pay the price.